North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South was my first Gaskell read. I read it after watching the BBC TV series and perhaps due to the influence of the TV series got the overall impression that this was a love story. However, I remember liking the book very much and this prompted me to reread the book. But after this second reading, I’m surprised to find it is to be otherwise. I mean, there is still a love story but that is not all. It is also about the clash of southern and northern ideas and the clash of the working-class and their masters.

Margaret Hale, full of southern pride, finds herself suddenly placed in a northern industrial city. Having entertained a strong prejudice against the tradesmen, she views the northern mill owners to be similar uncouth men. Her pride and the misconceived notions mar her better judgment and she forms an instant dislike for Mr. Thornton. This dislike was mutual initially, but Mr. Thornton goes through gradual change; and although he dislikes her haughty ways, he slowly learns to appreciate her for her true qualities and falls in love. Margaret, though not as quickly as Mr. Thornton, too goes through this gradual change and learns to appreciate who he truly is.

Gaskell’s idea of bringing these two characters, as I see, is twofold. First, through these characters, one from the south and other from north, she shows us how the different views, beliefs, and misconceptions of the two ends were reconciled. The southerners saw the industrial northern cities as noisy, smoky, and full of uncouth people while the northerners saw the south as full of idle people who lacked action and also depth. It was interesting to see how Gaskell expressed these clashing views of both ends through her main characters, and the final reconciliation of the two was more like a reconciliation of North and South where both sides come to understand and respect their different ways. Second is, of course, for the obvious reason of filling a love story. Gaskell has achieved these two-folds end brilliantly. In my original review, which was written after my second reading, I have expressed my view that Margaret’s and John’s story lacked romance, that it was more one-sided on the part of Mr. Thonton’s, and Margaret’s feelings and her ultimate realization of her love for Mr. Thornton was rather forced. This is not so! I have misconstrued Margaret’s emotions and feelings and have completely missed out on Margaret’s subtle gradual change of perception and accordingly her feelings. There were words, phrases, sentences, direct and implying, which showed Margaret’s changes of feeling. Even the sighs and the silence in between the lines contributed to the change! My inattention to these subtle details has blundered me in my judgment of Margaret and their romance. I’m very glad that my third reading has put me out of my misconception.

On “master” and “hand” (workman) relationship, Gaskell stresses the importance of creating an amenable setting between the two classes to achieve greater productivity. The observation Margaret makes during a conversation with Mr. Thornton and her father that “I see two classes dependent on each other in every possible way, yet each evidently regarding the interests of the other as opposed to their own..” neatly summarises the antagonism of the masters and the working class. Higgins who represents the working class and Thornton, the masters were used by Gaskell to bring out the conflict between the two classes. It was very interesting to read the clash of these two classes through these two differing yet strong characters. The gradual change of opinion of Higgins and Thornton towards each other, not as a workman and master, but as human beings, and their growing respect for each other shows Gaskell’s optimism for better relations of two classes.

It was an amazing reread and I can honestly say that it is this reading that made me fully appreciate this beloved book.

P.S. I wish there were few chapters added by Gaskell after Margaret and John met again on reversing circumstances and declare their feelings for each other. I may sound sentimental but I so wanted to read a little more than their initial declaration of love. 🙂

Rating: 5/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.

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